Dukakis budget plans draw warnings of state deficit ahead

PENNY-pinching may be more discussed than practiced in Bay State government circles these days. The $12.68 billion budget that Gov. Michael Dukakis has proposed for the 12 months beginning July 1 is more than double what it took to do the job just seven years ago. And it's 71 percent more than Gov. Edward King requested for fiscal 1983, in January 1982. In contrast, inflation levels since then have risen just 14 percent.

Although Mr. Dukakis's recommendations for funding some programs are less than was requested by the agencies involved, the governor's fiscal 1989 spending package is $857 million higher than what was appropriated for this year.

The governor may be eager to provide at least modest expansion and new initiatives in public education, human services, environmental protection, and so forth, but how much can Massachusetts afford?

Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Taxpayers' Foundation (MTF), which has issued many warnings about the state's substantially faster-than-inflation growth in spending, is again voicing concern over the Dukakis efforts to end the fiscal year without a deficit.

The MTF suggests that the projected 6.6 percent increase in state revenue for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, may be especially hard to achieve. The respected private watchdog agency notes that tax collections in the first half of fiscal 1988 climbed just 4.6 percent.

The MTF is urging not a complete halt in increased appropriations in the coming year but rather restraints on total spending ``to avoid a very substantial deficit in fiscal 1989.''

That should be where the legislature comes in, with its seldom-used fiscal shears.

Although the Dukakis budget is balanced on the surface, as required by the state constitution, much hinges on legislature approval of several new revenue measures. Should lawmakers refuse to go along with the proposals for bringing in the extra dollars, the Dukakis spending blueprint would almost certainly have to be redrawn.

That could force some tough decisions on possible cutbacks in certain programs and projects, including some sought by special interests, whom the governor may be reluctant to displease.

The delicately balanced Dukakis proposal, filed Jan. 26, calls for raising $74 million by closing state tax loopholes, picking up $190 million through improved enforcement of tax collections, latching onto $70 million in unredeemed deposits from beverage bottles and cans; and by a $17 million boost in certain fees and fines.

Most of these potential revenue producers were proposed by the governor last year but aroused little lawmaker enthusiasm.

In an election year, especially one in which the governor has his sights on the White House and state senators and representatives are up for reelection, Dukakis would obviously have preferred to avoid having to go after any increased revenue. But to provide the required added funding to make his 1989 budget even appear flyable, he had little choice.

Instead of going after a broad range of fee increases, the governor seeks to zero in on a few that would affect a minimum of Bay Staters. Similarly unlikely to alienate a lot of people is a Dukakis proposal to increase fines for certain major motor-vehicle violations, including doubling from $50 to $100 the fine for driving speeds of 75 miles an hour and more.

Catching tax evaders or cheaters is laudable, but collecting the $190 million that the governor's proposal is counting on would involve the hiring about 500 more auditors, examiners, and other specialized personnel at the Department of Revenue.

Another 533 new positions would be added in the State Department of Corrections to deal with the overcrowded prison system. And the Department of Mental Health work force would be enlarged by 305. The remaining 272 new positions sought in the Dukakis budget would be spread through other state agencies.

As justified as the expanded payroll might be, the addition of 1,541 jobs merits close scrutiny to protect state government from perhaps a large order of election-year political patronage.

Obviously, some of the Dukakis proposed spending increases, like those for improved welfare benefits and aid to local governments, are essential.

Considerably less needed, however, are recommendations such as a taxpayer-supported association of districts attorney. Why should state dollars be used to staff such an agency, or any similar operation engaged largely in legislative lobbying pursuits?

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